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Jewel Beauty In Rare Enamels

Enameling was an ancient art when Phidias sculptured his Olympian Zeus in the 5th century B. C. He inlaid the screens about the mighty throne with blue and red and yellow fused glass enamel. He "embroidered" the solid gold skirt with enamel flowers, and set in rubies, emeralds and sapphires to enrich his great gold and ivory god.

In those days jewels, dug by the puny tools of biblical man, were too scarce and valuable for other than gods, royalty and merchant princes 'to enjoy. Glass, colored with metallic oxides, gave jewel beauty which also could be melted onto metals.

But melted glass ran. So the craftsmen made tiny gold bands called "cloisons" which they soldered to the metal to fence in or encloison every detail of pattern. They learned to put these cloisons through the plain background, too, to help fasten or "key" the enamel to its base and give the whole a rich golden glow.

So colored glass, ground to a powder, was made into a paste, laid in its proper cells, dried, and fired. Colors requiring highest fusing heat were put on first; those that took lowest heat, last. The fused enamel was ground down to the cloisons and polished to bring out the pattern, and show the rich underlying metal plus the full transparency of the "glass jewel" surface. This is cloisonne enamel.


Now champleve, called the bronze and copper workers' enamel, had its cells for holding the fused glass, gouged right out of the bronze, brass, copper or iron vessel itself. Naturally such cells were less regular, less smoothly curved, and rougher of "bed." This very unevenness added texture, shadows, and color depth to champleve enamel.

Then the tin in the bronze and impurities in the brass, copper or iron, ate into the fusing glass, clouding its colors, unless gold or silver foil was laid between metal and glass. So champleve was less brilliant in color, less transparent than cloisonne. So the old, loved, Eastern opaque colors of lapis lazuli, coral, turquoise, jade, amber, Rhodian or Roman red, plus black and white, were commonly used for champleve enamels.

Celts and Gauls made champleve. Philostratus tells of barbarians who poured colored glass on red hot bronze. Archaeologists have found ancient furnaces and champleve vessels in France; and ancient altars, dug from the Thames in Britain, show champleve enamels amazingly intact.


When artists realized unevenly gouged cells deepened the colors of glass in the deeper pits and thinned the color in the shallow pits, they invented basse taille or enamel over engraved design. It was generally made on gold or silver, and its engraved (gouged out) pattern filled with jewel-clear glass. The various depths of the engraving, and color and gleam of the metal through the glass, gave a varied, rich effect.

Wire enamel was the outlining of enamel cells with milled or twisted jewelry wire in gold or silver. Sometimes opaque colored glass in a translucent glass ground was connected with 'these pattern-making and enriching filigree wires. Often the wire was slightly higher than the glass it enclosed, giving additional color, design and richness to the enamel.

In New York's Metropolitan Museum is a Greek necklace from the 4th century B. C. with flower pendants showing traces of enamel in the enclosing wire of each petal. Wire enamel, where the filigree wire makes the background but is touched here and there with glass jewels, looks much like needle point lace encrusted with jewels.

Plique a jour enamel is a cut, or pierced metal or wire-made fretwork, its spaces filled with fused-in glass. It seems to have been perfected in Northern European countries, though France in modern times made spoons and similar pieces, ornamenting the handles and other suitable portions with enamel-filled metal "cut outs." The trick is to get the enamel to hold to the metal frame till is fuses. Clay or foil is sometimes used to back and hold it, then is removed after the firing sets the enamel. It is sometimes called Russian enamel.

Encrusted enamel, made by laying on coat after coat, firing each, builds the enamel into a raised surface. The Chinese, Japanese, and sometimes the French, leave it with its final fire polish. Others usually polish it down almost to the engraved or imbedded cloisons.


Painted enamels came from the enameler's habit of touching up with his paint brush to correct and enrich colors that didn't come out to suit in the firing. Greece's Phidias touched nature into the enamel flowers on 'the gold robe of Zeus.

Powdered glass paints that fuse in lower heat are brushed on to correct or add pattern or texture, as flowers, feathers, fur, scales. Enamelers soften lines with "feathering" and enrich or subdue colors by brushdotting contrasting or adjacent colors.

In the 12th century the French at Limoges were painting enamel jewelry, altar pieces and plaques. In time colors became excessive. Stylisms developed, demanding gold foil under red, brown and yellow to warm the colors; and silver foil under blue, green and purple to cool them.

Later Limoges enamels used white figures on black, scratching away some of the white to get gray shadows and modeling. So enamel in grisaille developed, and white, gray or lavender-faced saints on a black, purple or blue background graced altar pieces and reliquaries while sophisticated plaques and boxes carried scenes from mythology. Finally the art turned to miniature painting.

Such on-enamel painting, which is like painting over the glaze in chinaware, was done in both Europe and the Orient. The Chinese were expert at it and much Limoges enamel was sent to Canton for their china painters to decorate, in Louis XIV's time.

England's Battersea and Bickley enameled copper boxes, ink stands and candlesticks, white or tinted pink or blue. were painted with birds, flowers and humans. Persia from ancient times has painted flowers on white or colored panels of her enamels.


Late medieval China began making "French Devil's ware" using cloisonne on brass, bronze or iron, covering all but rim and base, depending on cloisons to shape the pattern, blend colors, and hold the enamel to its base. The Japanese soon learned the art from China. Both produced highly glazed colors, often left with the fire polish. The Japanese even put enamel in porcelain by setting the cloisons in the still damp china clay. Some Japanese enamels use few cloisons and leave wide, unkeyed spaces.

India often made her champleve enamel cells by beating up or down the soft copper, silver, or gold metal used to form her objects. Sometimes she engraved or incised the cells. Her armor, candle holders, water jugs, basins, bowls and trays are rich in ruby of Jaipur red (made with iron and copper), in Delhi's favorite copper emerald and tin white, in Kashmir and Hyderabad's cobalt blue, turquoise, and copper emerald. The Moguls even liked tiny gold pans filled with these rich enamels inlaid in their jade and crystal.

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